Text: Alec Coiro
Images Courtesy of INC Architecture and Design
It’s not clear to me how an architecture and design firm can be so successful and so brave at the same time; the partners I spoke with — Adam Rolston, Drew Stuart, and Gabriel Benroth — are extremely good natured, but surely their bonhomie must belie some fierceness of convictions. How else do they propose and then create a hotel themed around the power of nature to destroy. Thankfully they managed to push it through, and the end result is amazing. If some crusty old philologist has ever lectured you on how the word “awesome” has been diluted from its original meaning, this is definitely one of those cases when it’s a shame we can’t summon its full meaning because the design manages to conjure the awesome power of nature in a way that recalls a romantic oil painting of yore.
As it happens, the evocation of nature’s awesome force came in the wake of hurricane season, “We had been designing it for about a year when Sandy hit. It required about another year of redesign, and it did become about the darker side of nature to a certain degree.” Stepping into the hotel, you feel nature’s power throughout the design, which at once brings to mind an overgrown urban landscape and a weather-beaten wharf. Perhaps the best two examples of this are the green wall in the lobby and the artwork behind the reception desk. For the green wall, “We said we want the plants on the interior not to feel like houseplants. They needed to feel like the park’s coming inside.” To achieve this effect, INC worked with Damien Harrison of Harrison Green. “The green wall was something we really struggled with. We went through 4-5 designers to get to Damien. He really got this idea of the power of nature to take over human intervention. You don’t know if it’s eroding or crawling up the wall. It captures the collision of nature and the urban.”
The sculpture behind the reception desk is by Jarrod Charles Beck an even more dramatic metonym for INC’s overall sublime-first-beauty-second design approach. “It’s actually roofing tar paper from a tornado that hit Utica, NY.” And, it’s not just the reception art that channels Gaia’s rage, as the partners point out, “All the art that you’ll see in the hotel is about the less beautiful side of nature and the more powerful, destructive side.”
Perhaps being in awe of nature’s power to destroy is ultimately the only way to compel an effectively green society. 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge goes far further in than your typical “green” project. The partners at INC have also noticed this contrast between the hotel and other green projects, “Over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of what we call greenwash, where there are projects that pretend to be green and have things that could technically make them green, but the really interesting thing about this hotel is that it is in and of itself a green building in the sense that the land lease that the hotel is on is actually paying for the operation and maintenance of the park. In the building itself there are fees attached to the hotel rooms that go towards the park, and then there are even aspects of the hotel like the water retainage system for all the rainwater that goes to irrigate the park. It’s probably one of the greatest green proposition that the city’s ever executed.”
It captures the collision of nature and the urban.
To take the green significance of 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge a step further, I would add that a scarcely acknowledged but probably significant impediment to real ecological change is the fact that conservatives who (like everyone else on the planet) should want environmental protections, shy away from environmentalism because it can seem inextricably tied to the egalitarian ideals of the hippy commune. But what INC is demonstrating is that luxury can be just as green as anything. This comes across distinctly through what their press release deems “Sensual Sustainability,” but can be seen more specifically in their practice of “upcycling,” a term that they explained to me: “You take something that is either leftover or recycled and you take a lower value and raise it up to a higher value. Downcycling is when you take a plastic bottle and reuse it and its value goes down. Upcycling reverses that and takes leftover things and makes them more and more valuable.” Examples of upcycling abound; one that springs immediately to mind is the collection of stylish end tables that were created by a company called StreetWood from all of the pallets that were delivered to the construction site. “What we find very exciting and feels very Brooklyn to us is the idea that through that creativity and ingenuity you can bring that extra value, that sense of luxury. Not necessarily through gold leaf. It doesn’t have to be gold leaf?” It should also be noted here that in 2017, any alternative to expressing luxury through gold is welcome.
The other defining aspect of INC’s approach to 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge (and, it should be noted, to all their projects) is their attention to context. “One of our phrases in the studio is ‘context is king.’ Almost all of designs, creativity, and decisions are driven by context. It can the historical context or the physical context. In this project, it’s really all of the above.” In this case, the context is Brooklyn, both its culture and history. It is important to immediately add that they are genuinely talking about Brooklyn and not “Brooklyn,” as evidenced by their stated mission to go “beyond the clichés of ‘Brooklyn: the brand.’” Instead, INC pulled off insane Brooklyn stunts, like, following the lead of the architect, opening up the granite quarry that was used for the very Brooklyn Bridge itself to build their North Staircase.
The entire hotel is really a series of examples of the “context is king” philosophy. A notable one that you see immediately upon entering is the diagonal beams above reception. “We looked at a lot of the wharf architecture that existed here before the park. There were beautiful old wooden structures that existed; you see the remnants in the piers that are out there in the water now. A lot of them had these diagonal structures”; the lamps used in the lobby are based on diving bells; there is also something called the bondage coffee table designed by INC and made by Uhuru out of beams Uhuru had collected from the Domino Sugar warehouse, making the coffee table a fine example of both incorporating context and upcycling.
Moving up to the rooms, we are hit with a flood of context in a literal and immediate way. Unlike the Maritime hotel, with a generically similar “ship cabin” design reference, 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge has no patience for small, circular cabin windows, and instead makes the entire wall the window, putting the Brooklyn waterfront in all its majesty on full display. The designers tried to optimize this openness in their plans for the room. “The [standard king] is 315 square feet and the end wall is all glass, so we decided that the view is the most important thing, so we exploded the bathroom. The only enclosed portion of the bathroom is the toilet stall. It’s got a frosted glass enclosure. The shower’s actually clear glass, so you can literally stand in the shower and look at the view.”
Beyond 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, INC Architecture & Design has a number of projects in the works, including several prominent hotels like The Line, which is a new project by the owners of Nomad Hotel that will open in Washington D.C. in the Fall. The one that I found most exciting was INC’s commission for the TWA hotel, which will be a renovation of the TWA terminal at JFK. Given everything I know about INC, the project seems like a match made in heaven. As the partners put it, “We adore that building.” Adding, “and the context is so strong.”